When we are in a cultural race to the bottom, it is the one who gets there last who wins
My absolute favourite “newspaper” is The Economist. Issued weekly, I find there is no better place to get a balanced view of what is really happening in the world—politically, economically, and at times also culturally.
One of the most recent issues (June 5th to June 11th, 2021) contained an article with a now familiar theme: the relative decline of Europe. Couched exclusively in economic terms, the article marshalled a wide range of statistics that looked at the low level of economic growth as failings of Europe compared to the rest of the world.
But I would argue that this is a very lopsided view to take. Voices of reason have pointed to just how imperfect a measure GDP is as a yardstick of achievement. It is at best an imperfect measure of economic output. It does not take into account progress or wealth in areas other than financial. The happiness of citizens, the amount of leisure time available, and most importantly, dignity.
What do I mean? When a society is in large part defined by the size and durability of its social safety net, it offers its citizenry more dignity. To know that there is a basic standard that any citizen can rely on when it comes to healthcare, human rights, working rights, there is that much more room to invest in culture. Culture and its growth are the responsibility of all citizens. When we have the freedom from want, we have the freedom to invest in our growth as people and as a society.
And on these measures, Europe excels. The US has become one of the most unequal societies on the planet [google the Gini Coefficient and look at how the US number has evolved over time]. The trend towards dis-equality is a global phenomenon and one which is driven in part by the US’s relentless export of its economic model. It is a race to the bottom.
Bigger and bigger companies speak to greater and greater efficiencies, lower and lower transaction costs, and increasing rewards to the owners of the means of production, not the workers that produce them. When FDR was President, Norman Rockwell produced a series of paintings that illustrated the Four Freedoms outlined in FDR’s state of the union address. The images are powerful, the concepts speak to a set of ideals that are universal and have stood as a core of US soft power…Their emergence coincided with the start of the greatest economic boom in US, and perhaps world history, one that was characterized by the incredible growth in standards of living for the majority of citizens. They are:
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of worship
- Freedom from want
- Freedom from fear
The assault on the Four Freedoms is notable in today’s US. The last President’s tenure made a mockery of these and showed a level of cynicism in today’s political class that is alarming.
As someone who moves back and forth between the US and Europe with frequency I see a cultural divergence that grows every day. The cost of living in Europe is now substantially lower than it is in the US. Levels of contentment in society are substantially higher in Europe than the US, and this is found in almost every measure—suicide, divorce, happiness scores. I also think about food, and how much better in quality it is in Europe—but also how much cheaper and more accessible organic food is. When I look at what I get for my money at a European supermarket vs. what is available in the US, it is no wonder that people are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet.
All I mean by all of this is that bashing Europe because it is growing more slowly on a flawed economic measure, is a very misleading picture. Other things matter more, and policy choices bring those things about. Inefficiency in this sense, becomes a tool through which cultural values and human dignity are protected. And that is just as important, if not more, than economic growth.